Size does matter: Small is beautiful

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We are told Bigger is Better. Big Airports, Big Bridges, Big Corporations, Big Shopping Malls, Big Dams, Bigger Banks, Bigger Plantation Firms, Bigger Highways (oh, what a nuisance, the oil is running out though) and even Big Agriculture. And we measure our well-being by how much we earn (and consume) – as in Per Capita Income levels – and how much more we can produce (the Gross Domestic Product or economic growth rates). We rarely factor into the equation the damage done to the environment or the loss of scarce natural resources.

And everywhere people are working to feed the unquenchable System, which it turn feeds our materialistic and consumerist desires. As a result, many Multinational Corporations today are richer and more powerful than some of the developing countries.

We have talked a lot about this Big Neo-Liberal Economic System. It is a system aided and abetted by politicians and their cronies, who are driven by greed and corruption to further deplete the world of its resources.

The System is decaying, though. The Pax Americana world we live in is tottering, the US dollar highly vulnerable, due to the massive financial deficits in the United States. The dollar is only propped up by demand for US dollars from developing countries and their external reserves maintained in dollars, but that could change as more nations switch to the euro currency.

The housing bubble in the United States is bursting and this could lead to a sharp slowdown in the US economy, precipitating a crisis of sorts. In the Middle East, America is stuck in a quagmire and could worsen matters by taking some sort of military action against Iran, which could overstretch its armies. Faced with the twin threat of global warming and imperial overstretch, the US-influenced global Empire is about to come unstuck.

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But what is the alternative to this Empire, you might well ask? In this excerpt from an article I wrote for the Herald, I tried to show that the only way out of the crisis facing humanity today is to adopt simplicity and renunciation as guiding principles in all areas of life and to use small local solutions wherever possible.

First of all, we have to be convinced that…a system based on materialism and greed goes against the basic principles of the Gospel (and for that matter, Buddhist teachings). Think of the call to renunciation (“Sell all your possessions and come, follow me”), simplicity (“The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”), and sharing of possessions (The Feeding of the Multitude).

We cannot rely on nation states or national politicians alone to significantly reform such a system – because for the most part, many of them are deeply mired in and compromised by the System. Maybe that is why many people in the developed world, sensing this, have withdrawn from politics, thus contributing to low voter turnouts at elections.

Concerned people and communities must act to bring about the change we want. But what sort of change do we want?

“Small is Beautiful”. That happens to be the title of a series a path-breaking books by Schumacher. No, not the Formula One driver, but E F Schumacher, an economist.

“Ever bigger machines, entailing ever bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress: they are a denial of wisdom,” he observed. “Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.”

“Man is small and therefore, small is beautiful,” he famously declared.

Heavily influenced by Buddhist economics from his travels to Burma, Schumacher believed that people needed good work to achieve holistic human development. “Production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life,” he said.

He was also greatly influenced by Catholicism. Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and the thoughts on distributivism by Catholic thinkers such as G K Chesterton resonated with Schumacher’s own thoughts on socio-economic justice. In 1971, Schumacher converted to Catholicism.

Today, people at the local level are beginning to stir. We can also see the signs of this “glocal” approach during the gathering of grassroots groups at the annual World Social Forums, also attended by Christian (including Catholic) groups involved in justice and peace work. At home, we saw it during the local protests against the Broga incinerator and PMPCIII’s call for a revival of basic local communities.

But for change at the local level to blossom, we also need local democracy, which requires elections to town and village councils, something we don’t have in Malaysia. Real local democracy would allow people to participate in the issues that concern them – very much in line with the CST principle of Subsidiarity.

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Rob Cartridge
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your blog is very timely – did you know that last week would have been EF Schumacher’s 99th Birthday. To celebrate and highlight his ideas – which get evr more relevant, we at Practical Action (a development charity that he founded) have launched a webiste where you can comment and discuss some of his theories – you can see more at http://www.ef-schumacher.org